Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On DVD: "Fright Night (2011)"

Full disclosure: I have never seen Fright Night, the 1985 horror picture upon which Craig Gillespie’s new remake is based. Depending on your point of view, that either renders me a) grossly under-qualified to judge the quality of the new film, or b) uniquely qualified to do just that, as it allows a viewing free of both negative comparisons and the nostalgic glow that tends to cloud our judgments of the pop culture of our youth. I went into the new Fright Night cold, so I can’t tell you how it stacks up. What I can tell is that it is a reasonably entertaining and high-spirited creeper that takes itself exactly the right degree of seriously.

Likable Anton Yelchin plays Charley Brewster, a one-time dork who has inexplicably landed uber-hot Amy (Imogen Poots) and become one of the cool kids. In the process, he has cut ties with his nerdiest old friend Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and is convinced he’s made the right call when Ed starts claiming that Charley’s hunky new neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell) is a vampire. “That is a terrible vampire name,” Charley insists, not unreasonably. “Jerry?” But then Ed disappears, and Charley realizes that his buddy was right about their neighbor, who sleeps days and seems up to no good at night. He goes to flashy magician Peter Vincent (David Tennant) for help, but soon realizes he’s going to have to take Jerry the vampire out on his own.

The screenplay adaptation is by Marti Noxon, a longtime Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer who brings in much of what made that show great—a smart sensibility and authentic wit, offset by a real sense of dread and some honest-to-goodness creepy imagery (there’s a great shot of a victim putting her finger to her lips as her blood is getting sucked that will make the vamp fetishists wet their pants). There are problems with Noxon’s script—contrary to her previous experience, the brief scenes of high school interaction are painfully clunky, and she chooses to blow right past numerous gaping plot holes (why don’t we ever see Ed’s parents again? What do they think happened to him?). And the picture stumbles seriously in its moments of non-ironic tough talk (“I don’t wanna live to tomorrow if you’re the kind of man I’m gonna be.” Seriously?).

But some of it is very, very good, and the acting is expert across the board. Farrell invests Jerry with exactly the right elixir of real menace and wry scenery-chewing; he and Yelchin’s scene at the back door of the young man’s house (an extended and tense riff on the old “vampires must be invited in” legend) is the film’s high point. Tennant (mainly known from his work on Dr. Who) plays Vincent as a cross between Criss Angel and Russell Brand, and that’s a good choice; Yelchin serves as a fine straight man for both of them. Toni Collette doesn’t get much to play as his mom, but she’s always a pleasure to see, and Imogen Poots (who was about the only memorable performer in last year’s Solitary Man) is outstanding in the film’s most clearly Buffy-inspired role.

The direction by Craig Gillespie (who directed the acclaimed Lars and the Real Girl and the somewhat, um, less acclaimed Mr. Woodcock) is, for the most part, effective, though one big set piece—Jerry’s attack on Craig’s fleeing SUV—hinges on CGI that is so unbelievable and overdone that it blows the stakes (so to speak); it’s like we’re watching a cartoon. And at risk of sounding like a broken record, there and throughout the film, so much of the action takes place at dusk and in darkness that the inevitable darkening effect of the utterly unnecessary 3-D renders the frame into a murky mess. Take my advice: save the surcharge.

Fright Night doesn’t end strongly—it’s got a nothing closing scene, and the end credit sequence is scored by Hugo’s acoustic rock cover of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” a choice that seems only explicable as the result of a game of iPod Shuffle Russian roulette. Taken as a whole, and as its own entity, Fright Night is goofy, uneven, and woefully predictable. But it’s got some style, some real scares, and a sense of humor, and all of those things count for something.

"Fright Night" is out today on DVD and Blu-ray.

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